In the line of fire

18th May 2001 at 01:00
The devastation continues long after the smoke has cleared if schools have no vision of the future, says Kevin Berry.

the deputy head's reaction to the fire the tore through his school initially seems bewildering: "I wish we had waited another 10 minutes before phoning the fire brigade. Then the whole building would have gone!" He looks embarrassed, but his feelings are similar to those of many heads who have experienced such an event.

Initial publicity gets them waves of sympathy and lots of help, but when the fuss has died down life has to go in an uncomfortable building on a cramped site. When nothing appears to be happening, parents start worrying about the future.

Surprisingly, the Department for Education does not record school fires, but Home Office statistics show there were 1,583 fires nationally last year - 929 of which were started maliciously - and the number is rising. The total number of fires resulted in 50 casulties - none fatal.

Many regional fire services run fire-prevention courses for schools. Julia Turpin, the site and administration manager at Leeds's Allerton Grange comprehensive, recommends them.

"Our fire was the result of an arsonist and the fire service told me that the chances of more attacks were high,"she says. "They said that having displays in certain corridors had to be stopped - no more noticeboards. That caused much upset. A lot of what they tell you is obvious, but it comes as a shock. The course is interesting and devastating."

Most of Brigshaw high school - also in Leeds - was destroyed. Fortunately, the city authority found a temporary block with up to 40 classrooms. The building had also been used by a school in Manchester after a devastating fire. Brigshaw's headteacher, Peter Laurence, often speaks at arson prevention courses.

"In the aftermath of a fire a school needs clear leadership - it is far more important than logistics. The school community has to be brought together and given a clear vision for the future. The message must go out that the school will bounce back".

Headteachers who have experienced fires emphasise the importance of sitting in on planning meetings with authority officials and architects.

Andrew Calverley of Park Row junior school in York says that, as a result of his involvement, doors with security locks were installed in the new building, as opposed to less important stage lighting.

Natalie Cossar of Henry Maynard junior school in Walthamstow, north-east London, was not involved in post-fire planning. She now wishes the new classrooms were bigger.

"We had an open-plan school and we didn't want it replaced with another one after the fire. We had to settle for classrooms opening out on to a shared area. Gathering the children in a circle around the teacher is now a physical impossibility."

Keeping parents informed is crucial. Only four children were taken away from Mr Calverley's school because of the disruption. During lunch breaks he took children to see the progress on the new building and every member of the school community laid their own brick in a wall.

"My governors told me to get the school in the York local paper at least once every half term", he smiles. "I had a couple of parents who were stirring things up, so we had a public meeting and the authority sent someone from every departmet. That calmed everyone down. Parents get angry at the fire for disrupting their children's education."

A public meeting in Walthamstow, to discuss plans for a new school, was not so successful. Parents felt the authority was not listening.

Park Grove school moved to the vacant wing of a secondary school in the city and the following year its intake halved as parents enrolled their children elsewhere. According to Mr Calverley, the parents of four-year-olds were unhappy with their children travelling by bus to school.

Ms Cossar found that working in a series of classroom huts in the playground - Waltham Forest built a veritable township of 16 mobile classrooms and extra buildings in Henry Maynard's extensive playground very smartly so that only 12 schooldays were lost - made teachers feel isolated and affected children's behaviour.

"For almost three years the children had been used to coming out of the huts and going straight on to the playground,",she says. "Then they had to get used to moving around a building quietly. The children hadn't had a library - they didn't know how to use one and that isn't something they can pick up overnight. They had to learn a whole lot of new routines."

Mr Calverley wishes his staff had spent more time planning for life in the new building. Over two and a half years they had to create a school from scratch, then move into a new building and create another school. The feeling was "It'll be alright once we get there." But it was not that simple.

Many heads speak of staff morale declining after they move into new buildings. Expectations are raised; the months of discomfort and isolation are coming to an end, but the reality of their new situation hits them. There is no magic formula, they say, beyond learning to live with what you have.

Ms Cossar has practical advice: ensure your inventory is up to date. At the end of every day she conducts a stocktake on the computer with her secretary and they each take a disk home.

Final words from Peter Laurence: "We are stronger because of the fire and we are making the most of new opportunities. But I wouldn't recommend having a fire as a way of getting a new school!" n


Every day, an average of three schools in the country will suffer an arson attack. Around 1,000 attacks are made on schools every year, costing pound;60 million. The overall cost of these fires could have paid for more than 43 new schools. An arsonist is most likely to be a pupil or former pupil, aged between 10 and16.

Measures you can take to reduce risk :

* Deter unauthorised entry by ensuring there is adequate fencing and security lights * Prevent intruders entering buildings by making sure doors and windows are secure * Instal monitored alarms so intruders can be detected immediately * Reduce the scope of damage by ensuring combustible material does not accumulate.

A video Can You See What THEY See? is available free from DFEE Publications Centre, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Nottingham NG15 0DL. Tel: 0845 6022260; e-mail: The Arson Prevention Bureau's free booklet How to Combat Arson in Schools is available from 020 7696 8996 or go to www.arson The Fire Protection Association's Sprinklers in Schools video costs pound;25. Visit or call 020 7902 5300.

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